Articles in Memoir
La Vie en Rose: Paris is known as the City of Light. But it’s also the city of waiters, and neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Arc of Triumph nor Notre Dame Cathedral — and its gaggle of roofline gargoyles — is more identified with Paris than the garçon de café.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
This black-and-white terror serves croque-monsieur, a coupe de champagne, café crème and a whole lot of attitude on almost every street corner in the city.
But he may be at his most formidable at the classy corner cafe, Les Deux Magots, on Boulevard Saint-Germain in the sixth arrondissement. With its dramatic terrace view of L’Église Saint-Germain, this go-to cafe is the perfect spot from which to muse on this often-misunderstood Parisian serveur (waiter) and his unique contribution to French culture.
Can the garçon be arrogant? Yes! Even nasty? Mais oui. Nevertheless, in all his guises through three centuries of French cafe history, this fellow is always efficient, knowledgeable and never boring. He is often as satisfying as the food and beverage he serves (or more so).
But, le garçon, or at least his persona, is in jeopardy. As reported on Feb. 19, 2015, in the Wall Street Journal, the City of Light’s official tourism office is bent on making this paragon of professionalism “nicer.” To what end? To please tourists, bien sûr (of course).
If the garçon is destined for an attitudinal makeover, it will be, it seems to me, a more fraught transformation of Paris than Baron Haussmann’s demolitions and reconstructions in the mid-19th century under Napoleon III. With Haussmann in charge, Paris lost, tragically, much of its medieval heritage and charm, but gained much more, I believe, in the way of hygiene (a new sewer system) and urban splendor — the grand boulevards, broad sidewalks, parks and the elegant stone apartment blocks we know and love today.
With the proposed sweetening of the garçon, the traditional Parisian cafe may gain tourist lucre, but at the risk of losing its Gallic sizzle, in no small part the gift of the garçon’s trademark sass.
When the dandy meets the butler
The cafe garçon is, after all, intentionally monstrous. A clever, almost Frankensteinian construct, he combines the self-absorbed fastidiousness of the Parisian dandy and the haughty solicitousness of the British butler. The garçon’s costume is no accident.
It was designed in the early 19th century to both function and impress. His many-pocketed black vest holds money, les additions (cafe checks), pens and service accessories such as corkscrews and crumb scoopers. The still-popular bow tie adds a touch of fin de siècle panache. With his spotless white apron (less common today), the garçon appears simultaneously hygienic and striking, even sexy, like a chef de cuisine in his crisp whites.
The mastery of this well-trained professional — of his body, of his trays piled high and of his affect — impresses and, yes, intimidates, but at the same time, seduces. He is better dressed and knows more than his customers about classic French food and wine, and he knows it.
The gargling gargoyle
Is there not, in fact, something about the cafe garçon that evokes that other fearsome Paris “gar,” the gargoyle (gargouille in French, pronounced “gar-GOO-ya”) Think about it: Both are “in service,” one to the secular cafe and one to the sacred church. Both guard their respective terrains jealously. And like the garçon, the gargoyle is a construct, a combination of hoary Gothic chimera and drainage technology — the first deflecting the devil, the second the rain.
Both the French and English words — gargouille and gargoyle — derive from the Old French gargole, which means gutter or waterspout and throat. Which is how gargoyles function at the roofline of large, usually religious, structures: Water from the roof flows through gargoyle’s body, exits the throat and is dumped on the ground several feet away from the structure’s foundations. This protects a church’s mortared stone walls and spiritual purity from the ill effects of “dirty” water.
Rabelais’ literary giant, Gargantua
There is no direct etymological connection between garçon and gargouille. “Garçon” appears in French sometime between 1100 and 1300 — as the Old French garçun, from a proto-Germanic word — and refers to a boy of low class or a young servant. The lowly garçon becomes a waiter in the late 18th century with the rise of the Parisian cafe and restaurant.
The “gar” of gargoyle is from the Latin root and means chatter, or the sounds that come from the throat or gutter. This gives us “gutteral” and “gargle.” And, of course, Gargantua, the young giant in Rabelais’ 16th-century novel. At birth Gargantua cries out for “drink, drink, drink.” His father, Lord Grangousier, noting his son’s huge anatomical features, exclaims . . .
Que GRAND TU AS & souple le gousier;” that is to say, “How great and nimble a throat thou hast.” — “The Works of Rabelais” (Bibliophilist Society, 1950)
And so he becomes Gar-gan-tu-a, and the basis of our English word, “gargantuan.” It takes the milk from 17,913 cows to satisfy the giant baby’s thirst.
When Rabelais’ epic satire takes the growing giant to Paris, Gargantua is irritated by the swarms of people gathered around him as he leans up against Notre Dame Cathedral. The young giant proceeds to relieve himself and drowns 260,418 Parisians. Protective gargoyles notwithstanding, Gargantua then steals the bells of Notre Dame, which he uses for a necklace around the neck of his giant horse before returning them.
Hommage au garçon
If after 500 years we are still amused by the outrageous exploits of Rabelais’ trouble-making Gargantua, why can’t we embrace, after 300 years of evolving French cafe culture, the classic, snooty garçon de café as he is? Instead of softening the garçon, let’s cast him in hard, eternal bronze.
Sitting on the terrace at Les Deux Magots, sipping on a coupe or nursing a crème, one can imagine a statue of the garcon de café, a gargantuan vertical gargoyle, spouting water into a broad pond located in the place just outside the entrance to L’Église Saint-Germain. Vive le garçon! Vive le café! Vive la France!
Main illustration: The garçon de café and the gargouille d’Église. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us from the luxe cafes of the Belle Epoch (1871-1914) to the louche cafes of its shadowy underbelly, the demi-monde, or “half-world” of bohemian poets, avant-garde artists, students, prostitutes and hustlers of every stripe. These cafe styles straddled the cultural divide between bourgeois respectability and decadent debauchery in fin-de-siècle Paris.
From the late 17th century onward, perhaps in response to Francesco Procopio’s invention of Café Procope (1676) as a showcase for Parisian glamor, fashion and style, the more subversive functions of the cafe as a public forum for radical political, philosophical and artistic thinking found caffeinated expression, even scandal and revolution, in Paris’ growing inventory of cafes.
Coffee as aphrodisiac
In pre-Procope Paris, coffee was primarily an exotic Oriental beverage with powerfully stimulating properties, mostly served in private homes. Doctors of the period even prescribed coffee as an aphrodisiac. Thus, the first cafes to emerge served as platforms for amorous as well as artistic and political liaisons.
By the 19th century, the entry of elegant women from the finest Parisian salons into cafe society proved to be one of the most profound social advances credited to Parisian cafe culture. Women, respectable or not and everything in between, entered at both ends of the spectrum, from high to low. From the chic cafes lining Baron Haussmann’s Grands Boulevards to the seedier cafes filled with artists and poets on both banks of the Seine, Paris’ internationally notorious filles de joie plied their trade to a hungry clientele.
Voulez vous poulet avec moi ce soir?
In French, the terminology we generalize in English as prostitutes (hookers, whores, call girls, street walkers and tramps) is far more nuanced and hierarchical, from the lowest pute, poule (chicken), morue (cod) and grue (crane) to the top of the line courtisane, whose many virtues are brilliantly portrayed in Susan Griffin’s “The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues” (2001).
Veritable celebrities, les courtisanes were also known as cocottes, grandes horizontales and demi-mondaines. Slightly lower in status, perhaps, were the poules de luxe (expensive chickens) and the belles de jour (“afternoon delight”), though I claim no authority in these saucy parsings.
The overlap between sexual and physical hunger is quite literal in French. A cocotte is both a courtesan and a shallow baking dish. Though not to be confused with a coquette, a flirtatious girly-girl decked out seductively in fashionable accessories, both cocotte and coquette derive from “cock” (coq in French), a chicken and a seducer.
Gourmandise and Gourmandine
Perhaps the least known conflation in French of nutrition and procreation — life and more life — are two related words, gourmandise and the more obscure gourmandine.
Gourmandise in English and French is derived from gourmand, which can mean gluttony (greediness) or an appreciation of refined food (delicacies). Older than “gourmet” (early 19th century), “gourmand” (late 15th century) shares etymological links to the Old French gloton.
Note that gluttony is one of Catholicism’s seven deadly sins. The meaning is nicely explicated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his list of variations: eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily, too wildly. I haven’t seen a better definition of our contemporary term in English for excessive gastronomical enthusiasm: foodie.
Gourmandine, a corruption of gourgandine, is yet another quasi-gastronomic synonym for prostitute, mostly found in French literature. In her book on the birth of Paris as the luxe capital of the world (“The Essence of Style,” 2005), Joan DeJean points out that “gourmandine” was also the name of a new (early 17th century) bodice that revealed a woman’s undergarments (lingerie). Her book cleverly connects the birth of haute couture in the court of Louis XIV to the evolving function of the cafe as a showcase for coquettish (if not “cocottish”) women and their seductive à la mode fashions.
Couture, Coco and Colette
The word “couture” is interesting in this context. It means “stitched together” (seam), and contains the root “co” which, as we saw in our previous Café French lesson, indicates in Latin, “with.”
Ironic that arguably the two greatest French women of the arts to emerge in the Belle Epoch period were both “cos”: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954). Never mind that they are co-Gabrielles, too. Their celebrated lives (and romances) bridged that same cultural divide we began our lesson with — the moral depths of Paris’ demi-monde and the dizzy heights of bourgeois Parisan luxe.
Ironic also that couturier Chanel, whose dessins modernes liberated women from their gourmandines, earned a double “coco” (child slang for little chicken) as a nickname. Was this a reference to a lyric from the popular song she notoriously sang as a young cabaret singer, or her experience as a young cocotte (her first marriage was one of convenience, as English would have it), or her early years as an industrious seamstress?
Like Coco, our second French “co,” the proto-feminist Colette, spent her early years as a performer. Colette’s most popular novels in English are “Gigi” and “Chéri,” both centered on the lives of cocottes or ex-cocottes. By the end of her life, Colette was living in a glamorous Palais-Royal apartment overlooking Paris (next door to Jean Cocteau!) where kings and queens had lived centuries earlier.
Of course, semantic analysis can’t always explain the fickle and often funny trajectories of history’s ironic narratives; nor why words, like memories, are created, vanish and, on occasion, return. Hard not to conclude, while nursing a grand crème at Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice, where world cinema’s “Belle de Jour,” Catherine Deneuve, often strolls past, that the spectacle we call history is merely our vain attempt at explaining a vast unfolding of incomprehensible coincidence.
Main illustration: Café French: La Cocotte, La Coquette, Coco And Colette. Credit: Copyright 2015 L. John Harris
La Vie en Rose: As a sensitive and hungry boy, I learned valuable life lessons from the classic series of children’s books by Howard R. Garis featuring Uncle Wiggily Longears, an elderly, kind and wise rabbit. In each illustrated story, Uncle Wiggily takes on the vagaries of life in his forest habitat and solves a social or personal problem within his community of furry critters.
I can recall one episode with gastronomic implications. As best as I remember it, a young squirrel or possum with a taste for candy gets a terrible tummy ache that Uncle Wiggily helps to cure. At the end Uncle Wiggily concludes, “Too much of anything is not too good!”
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
Mark Twain’s taste for whiskey
Uncle Wiggily’s lesson in hunger management is like a Hallmark card version of Mark Twain’s earlier drollery: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Truth be told, Twain’s version, despite wise Wiggily’s input into my early childhood development, comes much closer to the true “gastronomical me”: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good food is barely enough.”
Which brings me circuitously to our next Café French™ lesson: the curious linguistic connection between biological and aesthetic taste (goût in French, pronounced goo), and the ailment, gout (goutte in French, pronounced goot), caused by too much taste for rich food and alcohol.
It’s all Greek, Latin, Old French and Anglo-Saxon to me
The use in English and French of the same words — taste and goût — for both aesthetic appreciation and perception of flavor — is deeply embedded in our two languages. As Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker, explained in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), the English language “… is a copy of ours in almost all the words which are not Saxon …”
The convoluted etymological links between French goût and English taste, and between French goutte and English gout, are no mere accident and took millennia to develop. Here is a cursory Café French glossary:
Goût (FR): From the Latin gustus, Old French goust = Taste. “Gustatory” in English and “gustative” in French come from the same sources. By the 18th century, goût was associated with aesthetic taste in France.
Goutte (FR): From the Latin gutta, Old French gote = Gout and Drop. It was thought as far back as the ninth century that this inflammatory ailment was caused by little drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints causing painful swelling — a theory close to the modern explanation.
Gout (ENG): Derives from the Old French gote (see goutte). Again, note Voltaire’s comment above about the origins of many English words.
Taste (ENG): From the Vulgar Latin tastāre and the Old French tast = Touch. The Old English smaecken — to taste — derives from the German schmecken, which translates as “to taste, try, smell, perceive.”
But why the same words in English, French and most other Romance languages for both aesthetic and physical taste? The complex etymology is well-documented, but I have not found an acceptable answer why our sense of taste — the human faculty least associated with art with a capital “A” (the fine arts) — is used as the metaphor for discerning, as Voltaire put it, “the feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts.”
Our other senses are, in fact, used in some contexts to describe aesthetic taste: You can have an eye for design and an ear for music. But you can’t have an eye for music or an ear for sculpture. Why then does “taste” apply so universally?
Is it because when we taste something, we bring the object of that sense (food and beverage) into the body itself, which, I would argue, renders taste unique among the human senses in being more sensitive? This is a simple explanation I can live with. After all, bad food can kill you. Bad paintings just make you sick.
Uncle Wiggily meets Voltaire in Paris
Voltaire’s ideas about taste emerged at a time when Paris had become Europe’s capital of le bon goût — in art, style, fashion and gastronomy — during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Ralph Lauren of French monarchs. The cafe had arrived as the chic nexus of good taste (both kinds) and the go-to spot for that new, exotic beverage — coffee. But cafes mainly catered to a small Parisian elite in Voltaire’s day. “Taste,” he noted, ” … like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls.”
Today, the cafe serves good taste to a much broader swath of souls; less privileged perhaps, but still human. So, imagine for a moment that Uncle Wiggily had ventured out from his forest to travel to Paris with a group of young furry souls — chipmunks, possums, bunnies and bear cubs. They are seated at Voltaire’s favorite cafe, Café Procope (established in 1686 and still going strong), happily nibbling on wedges of quiche and sipping cups of chocolat chaud. The elderly, kind and wise Uncle Wiggily Longears would, of course, be admonishing his charges in his best rabbit French, “Trop de quoi que ce soit n’est pas trop bon!” Too much of anything is not too good …
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris
A British friend recently told me about a cake she grew up with called Sad Cake. That title struck me as pretty funny because when we think about cake we are conditioned to connect it to happiness — birthdays, anniversaries, all sorts of joyous celebrations. It turns out, though, that this British cake found in Lancashire got its name because it’s made from leftover pastry and has no filling such as the layer of candied peel, lots of currants and spices found in Eccles cake, a British favorite. Instead, sad cake is studded with just a few currants, and comes out of the oven looking flat and a little dejected.
Discovering sad cake got me thinking about the sorts of foods that sink my spirits, and I will be quick to say that what brings on melancholy in me may give others joy. For instance, when I order a restaurant main course described as including green vegetables only to wind up with a large hunk of meat, a pile of potatoes and two lonely string beans artfully placed, I feel a little sad because I wanted more of the beans. No doubt, this same plate of food would be completely satisfying to someone else.
I remember a time when I ordered tarte tatin, fully expecting to receive the classic upside-down caramelized apple pie, thick and toothsome. What was placed before me was a deconstructed version of the dish, a circle of pastry on one side of the plate, a pile of stewed apples across from it, and in the middle a little puddle of caramel sauce. The pastry chef no doubt had fun taking apart this wonderful dish, but I was left feeling bereft, longing for a thick slice of this beloved pie in which the flavors commingle.
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Another sort of food that lowers my mood is the sight of blue or pink frosting on cakes. For me, only chocolate or caramel frosting will do, a prejudice I suspect comes down from my mother who used to say rude things about artificially dyed foods. This brings me to an important distinction I must make between foods that make me sad and those that are revolting. Sad foods leave me feeling forlorn and disappointed. Revolting foods are downright stomach-turning.
What usually turns off people are foods outside of their culture and experience. If you didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or even rabbits, the thought of them can send chills. The mere idea of eating other small wild animals is repulsive to people who are not used to dining on squirrels or raccoons. What I find disagreeable these days is how bacon turns up in unexpected places. I was served a sugar cookie recently, and instead of coming across chocolate chips or raisins, I bit into little chunks of greasy bacon. Disgusted by this innovation, I discreetly spat a mouthful into a napkin and ditched the rest of the cookie. So, it is the unpleasant combination of ingredients and flavors that also are candidates for my revolting foods category. I don’t like Fluff with peanut butter, or bananas with anything, but unlike many people, I just love Miracle Whip, especially on cold chicken sandwiches. Again, I find that tastes vary considerably, not only from one country to another but from one family to the next.
One person’s anger is another’s …
The last related category in my compendium is foods that make you angry. When the medium-rare hamburger I ask for in a decent restaurant comes back well-done and gray, my passions rise. Sometimes entire meals can be vexing. I once attended a tasting dinner at a high-end restaurant, and of the six people around our table, only my husband was new to the game. Each course had different dishes that were set before us, and the idea was to take a taste and then pass the plate on to the person seated at our right. That way we all had a taste of everything without getting stuffed, and as far as I was concerned, the meal could have gone on forever, for we foodies, or “foodists” as some would prefer, were feeling happy about having our appetites and curiosity appeased. However, when I later asked my husband if he had enjoyed the meal, he told me that it made him mad because every time he really liked something, the plate was snatched away and he was handed something not nearly as good. Go figure.
The moral of all of this is that food creates mood, a well-known observation that is played out in literature and life. In “Like Water for Chocolate,” a young girl, thwarted in love, projects her grief onto the food she prepares, causing all who eat it to cry and sob. A more recent novel, “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” uses a similar magical device to give a young girl the ability to identify the cook’s genuine emotions in what she eats. In tasting her mother’s lemon cake, for instance, the girl discovers that her seemingly cheerful mother is a lonely and unhappy woman. These books, though full of high drama and literary license, are just another way of telling us that food affects our emotions.
I would only add that we each experience this truth in our own way.
Main photo: Sad Cake. Credit: Barbara Haber
When I hear about a tantalizing version of a food I love, nothing will stop me from going to the ends of the earth to find it, and I mean this literally. I am way too fond of confections and have been known to track down the best almond candy in Seville, the most delicious licorice in Helsinki or Amsterdam, and, when in Italy, the tastiest hazelnut chocolates. I go off in crazed pursuit of an obsession, tasting along the way to ensure I find the best. These hunts in foreign countries are no easy task since I have no sense of direction, so I try to take along a willing friend on these missions.
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But sweets are not the only foods I seek to satisfy a yen. I also have a weakness for bakeries that produce excellent bread, and for years have been in pursuit of the perfect bagel. What I was finding in most stores was far removed from the bagels I remember from my childhood. Handmade by bagel professionals, those objects of my desire were small with a hard and shiny crust, a chewy interior. These days, bagels are being churned out by machine and have become bloated and doughy, and even have pretension of being muffins in that some are made with blueberries, a hideous travesty.
But those days of responding sullenly to present-day bagels came to an end when I discovered flat bagels or “flagels” as they are lovingly called. I was at a brunch in New York when the hostess put out a basket brimming with a kind of bagel I had never seen before. They were large and flat, mostly crust with very little interior so there was no gummy stuff to contend with, and they were studded with poppy seeds or sesame, my favorite. And so I went on a hunt for the best flagels in NYC and found them at David’s bagel bakery on 1st Avenue. I bring back a bagful when I am in the city, and now think of this bagel as being the most important and satisfying resolution to any of my food odysseys.
Making someone else happy
Food pursuits can be about appeasing someone else’s desires rather than your own. I have a dear friend who spent great chunks of her life trying to please her 90-year-old, very particular mother. We all know how favorite items can disappear from grocery shelves, and this woman had lived long enough to endure many such disappointments, or, as her daughter put it, “my mother had only to like a product for it to go belly up.”
To buy up a remaining supply of a discontinued breath mint her mother claimed helped her digestion, my friend spent hours running around from one Greater Chicago gas station to another, scooping up all she could find to deliver to Mother. Another disappointment had to do with the demise of freeze-dried instant Sanka coffee, much beloved by her mother who adamantly rejected the powdered kind. This product was wiped out when Folger’s took over the market and crushed its competitor. In a relentless search for any remaining Sanka, my friend scoured large and small grocery stores, going farther and farther from her neighborhood with only an occasional payoff — a dusty jar at the back of a high shelf. Soon, those sources, too, were depleted.
The Cronut food obsession
I love to hear about other people’s food obsessions, and am happy and relieved to say that I seldom get caught up in them, since I have enough of my own. Most notably, we are seeing the stampede for Cronuts, that clever alliance between a doughnut and a croissant invented a little over a year ago by a New York pastry chef. His shop opens at 8 a.m., and people start lining up hours before for the privilege of buying two Cronuts, a rationing system that was put in place in response to demand. I would add that the lines and the rationing also keep up the hype. Each Cronut costs $5 and is filled with cream and topped with a flavored glaze. The fervor to get them has led to scalpers standing in those lines and profiting by reselling the pastries to well-heeled stayabeds.
Although the name “Cronuts” has been trademarked, the idea is available to all bakeries that want to bake and sell impostors. Imitations with such names as “doissants,” “crodoughs” and “kronuts” have shown up, and even the quite literally-named “doughnut croissant.” I have buzzed around and tasted a couple of these knockoffs and shrugged, although I would concede that the original is probably better, and someday I may get to try one. But, all in all, I’d rather be eating a flagel.
Main photo: Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber
I never thought I would say this, but I am beginning to miss airline meals. I know, I know, they were pretty bad, but at least they could fill the belly, even if you only picked away at bits of chicken and a few lettuce leaves and ate up the dinner roll.
You could at least ward off hunger and not be at the mercy of airline snacks. Nowadays, of course, for those of us who travel coach, snack foods are the only available edibles. It is possible, I reckon, to fly from coast to coast eating only pretzels. Even the more nourishing peanuts are no longer offered because everyone is so concerned about peanut allergies, fearing that even a whiff of them can cause passengers to keel over.
Travel food worthy of vacation
When flying, I try to bring along something decent like roasted almonds, slices of cheddar and a Granny Smith apple, but I don’t always remember, so this is why I sometimes long for that tray of food that used to be set down before my grim face.
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Some food lovers think ahead and pack a delectable meal if leaving home or, when heading back to the airport, they pick up good travel food from a favorite deli before getting anywhere near an airplane. A good friend from California who is in New York now and then, never leaves the city without a pastrami sandwich, thus extending her New York visit just a little bit longer.
Another trick of the wary traveler is to pack a lunch from a breakfast buffet just before heading for the airport. I do this when I am staying in a favorite hotel that offers such a buffet, managing to stow away a hard-cooked egg, an orange and a muffin, thus protected from whatever may befall me. Feeling like a bag lady, I always hope that no one I know will catch me squirreling away the food, but if it happens I go into a long ramble about the terrors of airplane food.
But such a humble lunch does not appeal to everyone. I know a woman who never forgets to organize and bring along her own travel food that is always the envy of other airline passengers. First she spreads a placemat on her tray table, then retrieves from her hand luggage a slice of country pâté and cornichons, thinly sliced rye bread, a wedge of Roquefort, naval orange segments, and squares of dark chocolate. A small bottle of fine wine used to accompany her meal, but now that stiff airline regulations prevent liquids in carry-ons, she drinks whatever she can find tolerable on the plane, often only water.
An improvised travelers’ feast
The best improvised meal I ever had in connection with air travel occurred some years ago when I was heading back from Spain from a food trip. About 10 other people who had been on that trip were with me on the flight from Madrid to New York City when our plane suddenly had engine trouble, did an about-face and delivered us back to Madrid. We were told that we would be staying overnight at a small hotel near the airport until our plane was appropriately repaired.
We managed to communicate with family and friends back home to explain the problem and, realizing we had no other choice, decided to make the best of it. Vouchers for a free meal in the hotel dining room were distributed and we bravely trooped in to face a cafeteria-style steam table filled with gray meat, mashed potatoes and overcooked vegetables. That was not Spanish food at all, but stuff designed for tourists on a low budget, so we foodies all turned away and decided to rummage in our carry-ons to throw together a meal of travel food we hoped would contain a little joy.
We met in one of our rooms, each carrying various bottles, jars, cans and packages of food we had collected on the trip. A more normal group of travelers would have been carrying souvenirs such as fragile ceramic bowls or figurines, but we had our own ideas about what to bring back from a foreign country.
Out came hunks of manchego cheese, cans of sardines, jars of bonito tuna, olives and peppers, Galician bread, boxes of crisp crackers from Seville and marcona almonds, those distinctly Spanish nuts that bring almonds to a higher level. The sweet lovers among us provided a dessert of almond turron and those chocolate-stuffed figs I have seen only in Spain.
It was a memorable and certainly a movable feast. And I know that if we had been given kitchen privileges, we might have whipped up a paella since some of us had the skill to do it as well as the fixings.
We all had tucked away bags of bomba rice and tins of smoked paprika because that’s what you buy in Spain. This improvised meal was surpassed only by the generosity and fun of the company, for food people know how to cheer one another up when stuck somewhere in a seedy airport hotel far from home.
Main photo: Travel food, from left: Marcona almonds, stuffed peppers, albacore tuna, roasted red peppers, olive oil, Bomba rice for paella, and in the foreground sweet orange-flavored torta made with olive oil. Credit: Barbara Haber
For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.
The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”
The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.
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The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.
The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.
An intricate system
A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.
The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.
In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.
A misplaced lunchbox
And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.
On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.
As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.
I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.
Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt